Is something or someone simply the sum of all the parts or a unified thing in their own right? This question or various iterations of it, has intrigued philosophers, psychologists and thinkers from a host of disciplines. Are we, as human beings, reducible to the material parts of our mind and/or our body? Or is whole body a unified thing in and of itself that is greater than the particulars? Perhaps this dichotomy itself is a false binary.
It was Aristotle, who so long ago, posited that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Certainly, we can be sure that the body is an integrated whole with differentiated parts that function in complex and dynamic ways. This principle balances the insights of modern science and the tradition of Christian spirituality and theological commentary.
The Apostle Paul, author of around two-thirds of the New Testament, puts forth a perspective on the body that dignifies and grounds bodily autonomy in something outside of itself. In his first letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul says the following:
“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
In Paul’s Jewish and Hellenistic context, this statement is rather striking, both for its novelty and for its continuity. Paul carries on the tradition of human beings be made in the image of God and thus representative of individuals who contain the imprint of the divine. However, by proclaiming that bodies themselves can be temples for the Holy Spirit, Paul puts forth a profoundly new conception of the relationship between humans and the transcendent. This contrasts somewhat with the dominant threads of Second Temple Judaism, where the temple was an actual place, with stringent rules and regulations regarding entrance. Paul instead, says that our bodies are also temples that can intermingle with God’s Spirit. It is because of this new possibility and reality, that Paul stresses the importance of treating and using our bodies in ways that are oriented towards the good and the beautiful.
The unity and harmony of the body is also emphasized by Christ himself in Matthew’s Gospel, where he speaks to the influence that one part of the body has on another:
“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then, the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness” (Matthew 6:22-23, NIV).
In short, the body is interconnected. One part cannot function without another. This principle applies not only to our own physical bodies, but to the larger communal bodies that we are a part of, whether they be neighborhoods, organizations, ministries or non-profits etc.
How does the design of the human body inform our thoughts on reentry and recovery? Or perhaps, why? We start with several foundational principles that undergird our understanding of the body and provide a subsequent direction for praxis. First, is the dignity of the human being and the body, which we at Damascus Way believe is created in the image of God. Second, is the principle of integration and interdependence.
In one of the poetic scriptures from the Psalms, we encounter a popular cultural adage that describes humans as “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). This notion reflects two seemingly conflicting ideas that should be held together in tension. Both spirituality and science teach us that our bodies are simultaneously fragile and resilient. Human beings have the capacity to endure some of the most extreme experiences and environments and yet are also vulnerable to a myriad of minor and mortal harms that can cause all sorts of chaos, suffering and ruin in our lives.
In the book The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, author Bessel Van der Vork outlines the relationship between trauma and the wellbeing of our mind and body. One point that is stressed, is the significant way in which traumatic experiences and their imprint weigh on an individual:
Those who have been subjected to some form of an adverse experience often become “so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds, trying to act as if nothing happened…It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability” (Van der Vork, 2).
Of course, research also indicates that “trauma-responses” vary and can express themselves in a variety of manners. The thread of continuity that runs through these various responses is that no matter how our body reacts or copes in the short-term, the effects of a specific experience often embed themselves deeply within us, often affecting our behaviors in ways that are not immediately recognized or associated with the precipitating cause.
Trauma can result from all sorts of experiences and occurs at any stage in life. Individuals can vary significantly in their response to the same event or experience and certain forms of trauma are linked not just to a single moment, but also to chronic exposure to stress or long-term environmental strains:
“Any physical or psychological stimuli that disrupts homeostasis results in a stress response. The stress response is adaptive…[preparing]…the body to handle the challenges presented by an internal or external environmental challenge (stressor) e.g., the body’s physiologic responses to trauma and invasive surgery serve to attenuate further tissue damage. But if the exposure to a stressor is actually or perceived as intense, repetitive (repeated acute stress), or prolonged (chronic stress), the stress response becomes maladaptive and detrimental to physiology e.g., exposure to chronic stressors can cause maladaptive reactions including depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment, and heart disease” (Chu B, Marwaha K, Sanvictores T, et al. “Physiology, Stress Reaction.” StatPearls (January 2023), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541120/).
Addressing trauma or at the very least, identifying trauma, is essential to an individual’s successful road to freedom in both the reentry and the recovery worlds, which often overlap. Unresolved or unidentified trauma is often the source of certain behaviors and generational cycles in an individual’s personal history and story. One of the most profound ways to combat the adverse effects of trauma is to equip and empower an individual to identify and address both the source and the influence of trauma in their life. The first and key step to this process is a subtle but profound shift in semantics and philosophy. When addressing an individual and working in the area of peer support in reentry and recovery, the question becomes not, “What’s wrong with you?” but “What happened to you?”
This simple change immediately reframes narratives, empowering the individual. Furthermore, it recaptures their dignity and humanity, by creating space to build and develop a person-centered approach to their road to freedom.
Damascus Way Reentry Center provides Trauma-informed services through the lens of reentry and recovery. Our mission is driven by the powerful and inspiring message of transformation that is testified to in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This means, that we believe there is inherent dignity and divinity within each human being, no matter their past or what they’ve experienced or subjected others to. We are proud to serve individuals from all walks of life and it is our conviction that successful reentry and recovery is predicated upon a service model that genuinely cares for a person, their story and their basic psychological and physiological needs.
The body does not function in isolation or separation from the mind or our material and spiritual needs. Here, at Damascus Way, we harness a model of care and support that promotes culturally knowledgeable engagement with our participants and an awareness of the role that trauma has on the body. Our staff members are increasingly equipped with the knowledge and tools to support and walk alongside of those we serve in order to effectively facilitate long-term recovery from substances and pathways to community connection and employment. These areas of focus allow us to attack the rate of recidivism as we work with populations that are trapped in cycles of incarceration.
The people we serve are who and what matter most at Damascus Way and we serve them best by understanding the way in which our bodies deal with the tragedies and trials of life. This is why we are so excited to be training key team members in peer support, which informs and educates us in relevant and pressing areas of concern in the field.